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Wagner boycott

October 6, 2010

Richard Wagner's music has been boycotted in Israel in light of the Nazi pogroms of 1938. Holocaust survivor and Israeli journalist Noah Klieger explains why the ban is justified and doesn't hinder reconciliation.

Noah Klieger
Noah Klieger survived several concentration camps during the HolocaustImage: Noach Klieger

The Israel Chamber Orchestra has agreed to perform a work by anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) at next year's Bayreuth Festival, although an unofficial boycott of the composer's music has been observed in Israel for over 70 years. Prominent Israeli journalist and Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger (born in 1926 in Strasbourg) explains how the unspoken Wagner ban came about in Israel and why he is opposed to an Israeli orchestra performing Wagner's music.

Deutsche Welle: Why are you opposed to the Israel Chamber Orchestra playing Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival?

Noah Klieger: I'm against it because I'm against playing Wagner in Israel. Wagner was the father of the theory of the races; he was the first one to claim that there was a master race - the Germans - and a low-class race - the Jews. He was the first to explain this in writing.

In 1938, the Symphony Orchestra of Eretz Israel, which later became the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, was about to perform Wagner in a concert in Tel Aviv directed by [Arturo] Toscanini. Bronislaw Huberman, the man who founded it, decided that the orchestra could not play Wagner.

November 8-9, 1938 was the so-called Night of Broken Glass where the synagogues were destroyed and burned all over Germany and Austria, thousands of shops were looted and destroyed, hundreds of Jews were murdered and tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. Huberman then realized that [Wagner's] theory had been realized by the Germans at that time. So he decided not to play Wagner.

Then he decided, together with the bosses of the Jewish community in Palestine - there was no Israeli government at that time - to boycott Wagner. This happened before the Shoah. So, of course it was taken over later, because during the Shoah it became clear that Hitler was a great admirer of Wagner. Not only did he adopt his theories, but he adopted his music as well.

The boycott has never been lifted. It's true that sometimes directors have tried to perform Wagner in Israel. A man who decided to do it was Daniel Barenboim who, in a concert with a German orchestra, performed Wagner, claiming that it was done spontaneously. But it's not true - you cannot perform spontaneously with an orchestra.

You would say, then, that if the Holocaust had not happened, Israel would still have a boycott against Wagner?

Yes, I think so, because the pogroms happened. It was not decided after the Holocaust, it was decided after the pogroms in 1938.

By the way, there is no official ban. It's a sentimental ban. As long as some of us are still alive, people should refrain from imposing Wagner on us. But we're the not only ones; there are many, many Israelis who were born after the Holocaust who are also against Wagner for the same reason.

How does this younger generation view Wagner?

I don't even know whether the younger generation is very familiar with Wagner. I don't think that many young people are fond of Wagner. I'm convinced they're not.

Do you think that the Israeli orchestra playing in Bayreuth could serve as an act of reconciliation?

We don't need reconciliation with Wagner. We have reconciliation with Germany. We have nothing against the new German generations. I go to Germany very often; I lecture in Germany. I lecture on the Shoah, but this is a different story. I have no problem whatsoever, because they're not the same Germans. But Wagner is the same Wagner - whether it's today or 100 years ago, it's the same Wagner with the same theory.

Does the ban apply to any other composers?

Destruction on a German street following the Night of Broken Glass on November 9, 1938
The 1938 Night of Broken Glass was evidence that the Nazis's anti-Semitism had turned violentImage: AP

No. Richard Strauss was at least as strong an anti-Semite as Wagner was, but we play Strauss.


Because he is not the father of this [racial] theory. If we banned all anti-Semites, we wouldn't have a lot of writers, poets and composers because most of them were anti-Jewish. I can give you a list of about a hundred. But we have their books, we read their books, we study their books, we even teach from their books. The same thing goes for music, but Wagner is a different story.

Have you had the personal experience of listening to Wagner's music?

I know Wagner's music, but I really don't like this music. It's too bombastic for me. It's only a joke of course [laughing] but it's music where you cannot even sleep in the opera because it's much too loud.

I personally don't like his music, but I know that he's a genius without any doubt. He was one of the greatest composers ever, but this has nothing to do with his theories.

Interview: Kate Bowen/Ma'ayan Yahbes

Editor: Nathan Witkop

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